‘To Translate Is to Look into a Mirror…’

“To translate is to look into a mirror and see someone other than oneself,” Lahiri writes. Credit… Liana Miuccio.

Benjamin Moser reviews Jhumpa Lahiri’s book “Translating Myself and Others.” The book deals with her decision at age 45 to begin writing in Italian, which for her was an entirely learned language.

“Art is not — should not — be an instrument for change of any kind,” she writes. “Once art weds itself to a social or political purpose it is bled of its true purpose, which is not to change the world but to explore the phenomenon and the consequences of change itself.” The book, instead, is about the consequences of the apparently simple act of choosing one’s own words.

(Benjamin Moser, “Jhumpa Lahiri Leaves Her Comfort Zone,” NYTimes, 5-17-22)

Lahiri’s first sentence would better read: “Art is not — and should not be — an instrument for change of any kind.”

One ponders what it means to “explore the phenomenon and the consequences of change” while not being wedded to a social or political purpose. The phrase from Auden’s elegy to Yeats comes to mind: For poetry makes nothing happen…. But the verse continues: it survives / In the valley of its making…etc.

Poetry survives! At least some of it does. Undoubtedly much (most?) of what aspires to be poetry (and art) does not.

Wallace Stevens, in the 1940s, sounded a note similar to Lahiri’s :

… He told one interviewer, the poet could not “allow himself to be absorbed as the politician was” in the moment, for to do so would sabotage the poet’s freedom to write anything of real significance.

(Paul Mariani, “The Whole Harmonium”)

Poets, when called upon, want to rise grandly and memorably to a tragedy or a celebration, but their verses must punch through the circumstance somehow, or else remain occasional. That’s what I hear Lahiri and Stevens implying.

An undying instance of punching through the occasion with language that is terse, torqued, and true, soaring beyond its moment, is the Gettysburg Address:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation… can long endure…
… In a larger sense, we can not… consecrate… this ground. The brave men… who struggled here, have consecrated it… The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here…

(Lincoln, 1863)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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